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Understanding the challenges nuns in China face

A closer look at female religious life reveals a complex and shifting reality

Understanding the challenges nuns in China face

Nuns in their distinctive habit at prayer in a Catholic church in China. (Photo by Michel Chambon)

Michel Chambon, Shanghai
China

August 29, 2017

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In the north of China, there is a well-known religious order: the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. The congregation is a diocesan community of 95 sisters. In China, there are officially only diocesan communities, as no national or international congregations are officially registered. But if this singular category seems to indicate a homogenous organization, a closer look at female religious life reveals a complex and shifting reality.

Most diocesan congregations have a long history. In the 19th century, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary began as a group of consecrated virgins providing basic medical care, educating the poor, teaching about Christ, and assisting the clergy. Their way of life attracted so many young women that in 1932 they became a religious congregation officially approved by the Holy See.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, northern China was turbulent. The Qing empire was vanishing, the Boxer rebellion brought disaster, the Japanese were invading Manchuria and Russian Soviets were encouraging local communists.

In the midst of a civil war, health care and education were not the priority of Chinese leaders-to-be. As a result, this period became a vacuum for the mission. The sisters engaged in activities such as running dispensaries, schools and orphanages as well as asylums for abandoned elderly people.

But when the Communists finally took control of the Chinese state in 1949, the sisters had to abandon religious mission and social services. Those sisters who did not escape to Taiwan had to return to their families. But elderly nuns insist that many sisters maintained a secret prayer life and continued to serve those in need around them.

When the Chinese Communists became less anti-religious and introduced reforms in the late 1970s, Catholic communities and religious orders were allowed to reappear in the public sphere. With the help of the local bishop and a few devoted Catholics, a dozen elderly Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary gathered and restarted their congregation life. 

But China had changed. The sisters had to find new ways to exist and serve the church and society as well as to redefine themselves. 

Today, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary have rebuilt a large convent in their historical city. In the nearby streets, people are used to seeing sisters in their distinctive religious attire. Although running a school is not possible anymore, a few sisters offer basic medical help to those left behind in modern China. Some manage a home for the elderly in their convent.

Several sisters serve in other parishes of the region. There they engage with most aspects of pastoral ministry, supervise the preparation for sacraments, teach catechism and help maintain parish buildings.

Clearly, the relatively large number of sisters and the wide range of their services call for thanksgiving. Together, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary oversee the loving presence of Christ in modern China. But challenges and difficulties have not vanished.

First of all, the sisters are facing a serious financial dilemma. So far, they have embraced a life of simplicity. But their socio-religious environment is evolving quickly. In order to afford medical insurance for all of the 95 sisters, the congregation would need to find an initial US$1 million and then to contribute about US$100,000 annually.

But the nature of their religious services does not allow them to find such large sums so most sisters are still without health insurance. Chinese Catholics prefer to give money for visible projects, such as new buildings. So it is problematic for the sisters to expect generous donations to meet financial shortfalls.

A second challenge for the sisters relates to evolution of the Chinese clergy.

In a context where the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary are increasingly educated, with their own international experience and pastoral expertise, achieving harmonious relations with local diocesan priests is challenging. Priests and nuns hold increasingly distinct views on the church and their own mission and duties.

This, of course, is mixed with gendered cultural norms that tend to position women in the lowest positions. Over the past decade, tensions within local parishes between priests and the sisters have become more common. And most of the time, the sister is the one who must finally leave.

These tensions exist also at diocesan levels between some bishops and their diocesan congregations. The most publicized case was within the diocese of Changzhi, Shanxi province, where Bishop Li Suguang simply dismantled the local congregation and confiscated their collective belongings.

The third and last challenge is about the congregations' identity. In modern history, the Catholic Church has come to assume that a religious congregation must define itself through a specific founder and charisma. But with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary, as with most Chinese diocesan congregations, there is no such clear founder.

During a long seminal period, the sisters were consecrated virgins [Catholic women who choose to remain celibate for their whole lives usually working under the direction of the local bishop] acting in many domains, and encouraged by others, including foreign bishops.

Only later did they become a religious congregation and now they continue to adapt their mission. The Chinese sisters are left trying to decide whether to focus on medical care, education or other diocesan services.

After almost 40 years of rebirth and growth, the visible presence of a Catholic consecrated life is quite strong in China today. Nevertheless, challenges and difficulties remain. Most of them are not from the state per se, but from socio-economic changes and ecclesiological expectations.

Michel Chambon is a French-Catholic theologian pursuing a doctorate in anthropology at Boston University in the United States. He is currently in China for one year of fieldwork among local Protestants.

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